The Conundrum of Being Strong

After breaking my silence about a personal life event (sexual assault), I know there are a lot of people that suddenly have a lot of questions. My original post was more intended to shed light on an issue in our society than it was to create a whirlwind of questions about me. However, I accept the questions and curiosity as a part of the journey.

After the post, I noticed that there was one reoccurring message in conversations with people that personally know me—I have always seemed so strong despite this silent trauma. To be honest, I wasn’t sure how to process that at first. On one hand, I guess it’s oddly reassuring, yet it also reinforces one of the misconceptions that caused me a lot of emotional turmoil throughout this ordeal. This was the false narrative: “I am supposed to be strong. Women are supposed to be strong.”

Strength is an positive attribute and I have always aspired to be a woman of great strength. So, I am happy that this trait is visible to others. However, strength doesn’t mean we are superhuman and invincible. Unfortunately, this is what I thought it meant for so long. Therefore, I kept my sexual assault a secret (read the post for other reasons) and operated in false strength. My desire to appear “strong” meant viewing trauma and mistakes as weakness and questioning my often wavering healing. I had no clue what “strong” really meant in practice.

Now I understand that being strong and feeling strong are two different things.

In our society, people look up to figures that show strength. You will rarely find anyone following a weak leader. Every Marvel superhero has his/her weakness, but we root for the superpowers. We admire people that seem to endure adversity and emerge as victors.

Well, as a young girl I had no clue about the complexities of strength. I thought strength meant always being confident, powerful, and happy. Somehow I developed the idea that I always had to show strength to the world and couldn’t let people see my greatest weaknesses. In reality, I was probably more terrified that if I acknowledged those weaknesses to myself it would mean I didn’t believe I was strong. The problem is I was equating strength with happiness and joy. If I am strong, I should feel happy. If I’m happy that means I’m strong. Wrong. In reality, real strength is preserving and moving forward in both times when you do and do not feel happy and joyful. It’s a way of being.

As I struggled internally through the silence of my assault, people could not understand saying I was depressed at times even when they saw me smiling. So, when people kept saying how strong they always viewed me, I started to wonder if this somehow meant they no longer believed it as much as they once did. My old way of thinking tried to sneak its little way back into my mind. After the comments, concerns, shock, and testimonies started rolling in, I started worrying about how this news would affect people’s image of me. Would they think my strength, drive, smile, laugh, ambition, and positivity is a lie? Of course, it is not. It’s just not the only truth. I was/am strong AND I really struggled during those hard times. And, oddly, it’s that struggle that made me even stronger today.

Changing My Perception of Strength

It was helpful for me to use fitness and sports to better understand true strength. In my athletic prime, I could lift a good amount in the weight room. I was a young female athlete on a mission to sprint faster and run longer. I was am proud of my strength at that time. And, I have to tell you, I was usually physically sore most of the time during the season! Eventually, I accepted soreness as a necessary component of building muscle, and after a while, my body adapted as it got stronger and I learned proper recovery. “No pain, no gain,” right? 

Think about it. When we see an elite athlete immediately after a game, are they not breathing pretty hard? Aren’t they usually tired, sore, and possibly on the brink of exhaustion? Exactly! So, why would we ever think that exhaustion or struggle signals a lack of strength? It’s actually the greatest sign of strength. Strength says, “I ran the race and finished. I am tired and sore, but I did not and will not give up. I will review this performance and get back to building more strength.”

Everyone displays emotions differently and everyone deals with things differently. When you see someone’s strength, it is never an indication that they are not carrying a heavy load mentally/emotionally, it just means that they are trying to never let it overtake them. So, as we move through the complex world around us, let’s remember that everyone has a story. You may never know the full story, but that doesn’t mean their pages are not filled with complicated stories just like everyone else. Never think that a “strong” person has never experienced great emotional challenges. Most likely, it is their journey through those challenges that makes them who they are.

Strength is more behavior than it is a feeling. I learned to stop questioning my strength whenever I discovered another area of weakness or struggled through a period of my life. Looking at strength this way has given me freedom in times when the weight of trauma, loss, failure, and disappointment are at an all-time high. I am free to show the world that my physical and emotional “soreness” is by no means a sign of weakness, but rather a sign of great strength. In the beginning, I would say “you are stronger than this.” Now I say, “I am strong because of this.”

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